By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church
February 6, 2022
5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Let us pray. O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
Today, imagine that I am a kind of journalist, giving you the who, what, when, where, why’s, from one of the most significant teachings ever to take place. The Sermon on the Mount. More significant than a TED talk with 50 million views. Or Steve Jobs giving a keynote address to his employees at Apple. Or the Gettysburg Address. Imagine words that are not intended as information, but formation. The blueprint of how humanity is and should be, according to God, spoken by the one in history who lived the words, who … was the Word. Imagine we are all there to hear that.
Where are we? On the mount, of course. Well, Luke called it a plain. But, probably it was a mountain that looked down over the Galilean countryside and the Sea of Galilee. There is now a church there that is called the Church of the Beatitudes. But it is important to know that Matthew’s hearers would have been abuzz at the notion of a leader, going up a mountain, giving a list, sharing a blueprint for how to live. The whispers would have been audible. That sounds like Moses 2.0! This is the new Torah! See, I told you we had to come!
When did this happen and who is there? According to Matthew, this address happened after the calling of the first four disciples. The band had been traveling together, healing people, and attracting large crowds, hence the need for a bit of a mounted pulpit.
What does he say? Certainly he is not selling a focus-grouped, piloted product that fixes things like spider veins or broken windshields. Nor is he touting some kind of be-happy-attitude, tagged as #blessed. He is challenging the culture itself. He is orienting his disciples to the Kingdom of Heaven, and teaching his disciples what – in light of that Kingdom – is unassailably true.
Was it well received? The people in the back loved it. But, the powers-that-be of the Pax Romana found it …problematic. Commentator James Howell said, “[Jesus] rudely crumpled up the mental map of the known world, and nobody in Galilee or Jerusalem seemed to appreciate having their traditional view of the world refolded and then redrawn, as if by some spiritual origami” (Howell, James C., The Beatitudes for Today, 2006).
Jesus offers this paper crane to us in the form of the beatitudes. (I am thankful to Rev. Jessica Tate for the idea of “offering a paper crane” and also for her research that deepened this sermon.) Nine declarations of blessedness (beatus) with powerful but indirect ethical imperatives. They do not ask for sad people to turn their minutes into moments nor find the rainbow in the rain nor learn their lesson. They pronounce shalom upon the very people who are in the emotional cheap seats, who drew the short straw of the soul. They declare the worthiness of those who feel like spiritual vagabonds. As Richard Rohr said, they elevate the weeping class.
Let’s start with the first one, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Theologian Tom Long suggests a helpful translation of the poor in spirit might be “spiritual beggars,” by which he means those who have come to the end of their own resources. The poor in spirit can be interpreted as both those being crushed by economic poverty and those who are affluent but humbly reminded of their dependence upon God. No matter how much money they have, these are the ones whose pain can’t be fixed by a nice bubble bath or a credit card. But Jesus says that when your spiritual piggy bank gets busted, inside there is a ticket to the Kingdom of Heaven. This whole other way of being in the world is yours.
Maybe we know people who are affluent, highly-educated, type-A folks – leaders of industry or military or government, or classrooms which feel like some combination of all three of those. Maybe we were taught from a young age that all things are possible with the right connections, the right mindset, at the right price point. And yet life can smack us in the face every so often—with death, divorce, job loss, drug abuse, infertility, a pandemic!—and then we discover that actually we can’t control it all and perhaps trying to control it all is what’s actually killing us. The author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “You’re afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control, but you never had control. All you had was anxiety.”
I think this beatitude suggests that letting go of control that you never had anyway is the river that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.
I’m reminded of the time, one of the times, the government shut down. Many people, men especially, in my former congregation were suddenly at home with no paychecks immediately coming in. They were worried and cagey and so frustrated. Driven by compassion mixed with boredom, quite a few offered to help at the Wednesday lunch we had for Spanish speaking day workers in Herndon. But there was a moment when Brad and Andy sat down next to Ramon and Nery, and the ache for work in the heart of every man at that table was slowly replaced with this fullness, that was partly Esther’s very filling chili, and partly the experience of metal folding chairs on linoleum scooching up to a full table, but ultimately, the taste of real community, unbroken by all the economic, language and cultural barriers that are almost always there. And from then on, those two in particular showed up over and over again to support that ministry. Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Renowned priest, Richard Rohr wrote, “Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it. That is why Jesus says the rich man can’t see the Kingdom. The rich one spends life trying to make tears unnecessary and, ultimately, impossible…. The weeping mode allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in. Tears from God are always for everybody.”
And that leads straight to the next beatitude. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. There is a deep biblical tradition called lamenting. This is the community that does not resign itself to the present condition of the world as final. With Zion we mourn the systems of injustice, the pain and the brokenness, and we receive the assurance that our struggle for justice is not futile. A prominent seminary professor said it this way, “the hope is in the struggle.”
And when I boil that down to a personal level, it sounds like “the hope, the comfort, is in admitting you are actually struggling.”
I suspect we all are mourning, even those work conferences we used to dread, even as we realize how hard the before-times were on many people. Some of us are mourning specific people. As I have shared with you, my mom died on March 20, 2020. I remember holding fast to this particular beatitude like promissory note from Jesus directly to me, thinking to myself, “Blessed are those who have to put on this blessed dress and these ridiculous pumps and fill out this absurd paperwork and write this impossible speech and comb through belongings that smell like her that don’t fit at all but should not be thrown out either, bless my heart…I will be comforted. Somehow. I don’t know how. But somehow. I will be.” Real hope often looks pretty messy.
But you know what, sure enough, I was comforted. I was comforted in specific and mystical ways. Comforted by cinnamon rolls someone dropped off and comforted by text messages from friends and people I hadn’t talked to in years. Comforted by singing Great is Thy Faithfulness in the same tiny chapel where I’d been confirmed as a teenager and comforted by hearing my Dad’s tenor voice carry on singing when I couldn’t. Comforted by an interim pastor and the Biblical words he spoke that felt like searchlights on the dark floodwaters of grief looking just for me. Comforted by music and art that I understood in a whole new way, comforted by birds hovering around the feeder that my mom tended so well, comforted by bulbs she planted coming up again from the crust of March flowerbeds. And that comfort has stayed with me. Because you know what, comfort then also means comfort now which also means comfort for what will come. I trust that. When we admit the struggle, and let ourselves mourn, we also allow room for comfort to find us.
Frederick Buechner wrote that we tend to live our lives like a big clenched fist. The clenched fist can do many things: it can work, hang onto things, impress, even fight. But, “the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept, even from good God himself, a helping hand.”
When the crowds left the mount that day, brushed off their pant legs, I suspect some of them realized that this sermon changed things for them. It was a syllabus for the rest of their lives. Maybe they realized that they were not meant to fear poverty or death of any kind. Their hands were open. They looked at the people in the crowd, from the wealthy man with a serious drinking problem, to the woman dressed all in grief, to the sunny face of a child who had been playing with lilies and chasing butterflies the whole time even in a dangerous Empire, looked at themselves, and realized something was forming. It’s as if the mount was not a mountain after all, but soil covering this massive bulb that was due to grow all over the earth, realized that they themselves were part of that somehow. They felt that growth in their fingertips when they helped someone who was suffering or let themselves be helped. They felt that growth in their toes when they did something brave and they felt that growth most of all when they broke bread with those they were not usually eating with before and opened their hands to receive bread they did not bake. And that is when they felt it. That is when we feel it too.